The Book of the Dead was an assortment of early Egyptian funerary texts written for a departed individual and placed in their tomb. It would contain numerous incantations that were meant to help one’s passage across the underworld into the afterlife. Illustrators of these texts were to prophesy what would happen after death and the challenges they would face. There is no singular source for the Book of the Dead. No copies are the same. Each copy was made uniquely for the individual who was wealthy enough to purchase one.
The writings from the Book of Life originated from ancient Pyramid writings from the Old Kingdom around 2400 B.C. This practice was exclusively used by royalty. Throughout this period, the intent of these texts was to aid the Pharaoh in finding his place among the gods in the sky, unlike the Book of the Dead’s interpretation of the underworld. Many of the hieroglyphics depicting creatures or people within these texts were left unfinished, possibly to keep them from harming the Pharaoh during his journey. However, by the end of the Old Kingdom, this practice was no longer restricted to royalty.
Between 2050 BC and 1710, a different funeral practice emerged. This practice consisted of writing the sacred texts on the inside of the deceased person’s sarcophagus and used an updated form of hieroglyphics as well as new spells. The writings were still found on tomb walls and even some papyrus, but it was usually found within coffins. This new practice was used not only by royalty, but also wealthy individuals.
The use of papyrus as manuscripts for funerary texts became more popular around 1580 B.C. It allowed even the poor citizens the ability to navigate the afterlife. The texts from this period are all different sizes. Depending on one’s wealth, one could have as many incantations or illustrations as desired. Vice versa, poorer individuals could buy simpler manuscripts with fewer spells.
Regardless of what era the writings of The Book of the Dead originated from, all were meant to help guide the soul after passing. Unlike life where the useable future is full of trials and unforeseen changes, the Book of the Dead was intended to prepare and guide one’s soul through every part of the afterlife.